Ebooks are a Disaster

A confession: ebooks are totally mystifying to me.  I may run this site and the future success of self-publishing rests on how much ebooks saturate the market, but I’m not a tech-head whatsoever. I don’t buy the latest gadgets or even follow the news that religiously – because a new gadget comes every third minute, and who can afford to shell out another $300 for the latest thing? I have a Sony ereader, but it’s not my first choice when it comes to reading. This may put me in a better position to talk about how incredibly and unnecessarily difficult it is to navigate the world of ebooks.

Currently, I’ve been getting the ebook of my novel together – primping it for Smashwords, Kindle and elsewhere.  I tried to format for Smashwords myself using Smashwords helpful but complicated Style Guide but eventually gave up and hired Moriah Jovan @ B10 Mediaworx to do it for me – something I heartily recommend.  $45 to strip a Word doc of all the issues that can be problematic for a multiple of different formats, while retaining indents for paragraphs, and other necessary formatting. The resulting book is here (plug).

We had a time of it, though, because the epub file wasn’t revealing the italics – which isn’t just a formatting problem, but an actual content problem.  Italics can change the entire meaning. Turns out – after many emails sent back and forth – that the desktop version of Stanza does not work as well as the iPhone app, which actually does reveal italics in the epub file.  One example of the many possible ways that ebook formatting can go awry.

Moriah Jovan wrote this bit of info about providing different formats of her own novels:

I go through six stages of getting an e-book ready in multiple formats:

1. PDF (Just the version I send to Lightning source, except I have to tweak the copyright page to reflect that it’s the ebook version w/ different ISBN.) That goes on Scribd.

2. EPUB, HTML, IMP, MOBI, LIT: I have to prepare the XHTML body, but then I have to do the individual style sheets because each format will honor different things and completely ignore others.

3. To do EPUB, I use Sigil. To do IMP, I use eBook Technologies. To do MOBI, I use Mobipocket Creator. To do LIT, I use Overdrive ReaderWorks.

4. I upload the MOBI file to Amazon’s Kindle. Uploading the RTF/DOC is a waste of time.

5. PDB for eReader. This has a funky sorta WYSIWYG program that’s…well, funky.

6. Smashwords, which is a stripped-down manuscript version and is a PITA to do.

Chances are most writers do not want to hassle with the above. Smashwords is great, but the ebooks are so stripped down that they leave something to be desired. I spent a long time designing the interior of my book – choosing fonts and font-sizes, etc. – only to have to delete all of that when creating the ebook. Given that people already chide ebooks for being a pale comparison to printed books, having an ebook be so different from the printed text is going to slow down converts to the platform.

Mike Cane, ebook guru, has a post titled, Apple Will Break Open The Digital Book Floodgates, about how Apple is creating a digital platform for creating ebooks that doesn’t require any advanced programming. He sums up:

All of this is the fatal stake in the heart of ePub and all eInk devices.

Because once people see digital books, they won’t settle for tarted-up text files.

If you’re a writer who has been sitting impatiently, thinking the digital book movement has been passing you by due to its expense and complexity, your day is coming. Get your plans together to bring them into creation.

Good news, but once again this is about the future, not the present, and until there is a universal format making it easier to both create and download ebooks, the e-revolution is going to be on hold. The future of self-publishing pretty much rests on how the ebook market explodes – it will happen, given the rate it’s expanding, but the number of ebook options currently out there is cumbersome and slowing down its progress.

The competition between ereaders isn’t much better. News yesterday was that Barnes & Noble is being sued by a rival ereader designer because B&N’s Nook allegedly stole their design. Still, a lot to be thankful for. Not too long ago, ebooks were a laughing stock, now ereaders are being hocked by Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake:

All right, so ebooks aren’t a total disaster, it’s actually a really exciting time. But “disaster” makes a more exciting headline. The competition between ereaders to outdo each other is great, but they still need adopt a central platform – like mp3 – or many people are going to be too confused to bother.  I’m just impatient for all this to get sorted out…which it will. And maybe impatience is one of the signatures of self-publishers.

  • Bah! They ARE a disaster. No one respects something that looks like a cheap text file and not a formatted-like-a-book — all pretty and such — file. This is why I am certain eBooks will die and digital books will thrive.

    And that future is closer than you think. EVERY writer better go buy a Macintosh because the digital book creation tools won’t be available on anything but that.

    This time next year, only the stubborn and the deluded will be holding onto ePub.

  • If I create a CD, it will work on any CD player. In fact, I am not allowed to use the CD trademark on it unless it does. And a manufacturer of CD players is not allowed to use the CD trademark unless the players will play all trademarked CDs.

    This is why CDs took over the world.

    Compare ePub. It isn’t trademarked. Anyone can publish an “ePub reader” and it doesn’t actually have to be able to render ePub files correctly. Stanza on the desktop is an example.

    Here is a little look into the future:

    1. Amazon announces ePub support on the Kindle.
    2. Amazon’s ePub is incompatible with Sony’s ePub – in that the formatting hacks that are needed on one device conflict with the formatting hacks that are needed on the other.
    3. Everyone learns that ePub doesn’t work.
    4. ePub dies.

    It’s a bit like browser incompatibilities except that there were always server-side ways round those. With ePub, there is no server.

  • Henry, the thing you have to know going in is that Smashwords allows NO PRETTYFICATION whatsoever. If you know that going in, you won’t be disappointed. OTOH, italics isn’t part of what gets stripped. Those should show up and I agree that italics can change meaning drastically.

    While I love looking into the future (after @mikecane points it out to me) and figuring out a way to implement it…

    I’m still stuck in the here and now. From my sales, the questions people ask me, and what people tell me they like, it comes down to EPUB v MOBI v PDB (eReader). PDB is surprisingly popular.

    I’m more than ready for one format. I’m in the midst of processing STAY (plug) and I’m frikkin exhausted.

    All that said, though, obviously I do more formatting than just Smashwords. 😉

  • I wouldn’t call them a disaster, at least for the reason that ebooks are selling like crazy, BUT I do completely agree with all the issues expressed. I only had a PDF of the final version of a novel I was trying to convert into an eBook. I became so frustrated at one point that I quit, saved all my work into a folder I titled KINDLE CRAP and haven’t touched it since. The complexity is absolutely overwhelming for someone without advanced html formatting knowledge. At least it was for me. I don’t want to speak for others. 🙂 I’m still thinking of just paying someone to convert the file for me.

  • I’ve just pulled the Kindle version of “The Shenandoah Spy”. The main issues was Amazon.com’s refusal to disable the text-to-speech feature, which sees to be the new must-have. Joe Wikert asked me for a guest post on his Kindleville blog and I’ve laid out my case there.

    I too have my problems with Smashword files. They are very hard to get right and I’ve put e-bboks of all types at the bottom of the priority list here. I’ve been publishing them since 2004 and there just doesn’t seem to be the kind of market that would justify all of the time and expense needed to prepare them properly. The e-books that are selling are the ones offered for minimal price. Amazon.com has slated the Kindle catalog with thousands of public domain titles at 99 cents each. Not only are you competing with classic authors like Charles Dickens, but he has the price and brand advantage.

    And if you have a print edition you don’t want to compete with yourself by offering the same text to bottom feeders. The print edition distribution scheme requires a publisher to give big discounts off list price to booksellers and distributors…and this is how you get in the brick and mortar spaces where 90 percent of books are still sold. Then there is the total gestalt of a printed book, which is not just the text, but the cover, the feel when you pick it up, the sweet smell of book paper and tactile feel of turning the pages like greeting a friend and the singular fact that you don’t have to plug it in or read it against the light on a screen. People do pay extra for that.

    I’m an old trade magazine reporter and I’ve seen this level of hype before. The Next Big Thing usually isn’t, and it is never a total replacement for what was there before, just an added layer of distribution. Formats come and go electronically. Bought an eight track tape lately? But the words stay and the best way to read them and preserve them is still in ink on paper.

    By the way, the reason I have all of those titles on Sony Reader, where they are currently selling best, is that Ingram Digital came to me and offered to do all the file conversions for free. They send a check every month and don’t play games and don’t waste my time. My best selling title on Sony is “Buying Retail” which is fiction. It’s also offered through Smashwords.com

  • And if you have a print edition you don’t want to compete with yourself by offering the same text to bottom feeders.

    I don’t agree with that. From my own experience, I can tell you that A) ebook sales sometimes get me print book sales [i.e., they read the ebook and decide it’s a keeper so they buy the print] and B) people who want print don’t want ebooks and C) people who read ebooks want to read ebooks and wouldn’t buy it in print anyway.

    I’ve been publishing them since 2004 and there just doesn’t seem to be the kind of market that would justify all of the time and expense needed to prepare them properly.

    I’m not doing this for the here and now. I’m doing this for the future. This isn’t 2004 and the market is growing, albeit slowly. Obviously, since I do it myself, I have no expense, but again, I consider that an investment in the future. I’m going for getting my stuff out there any way the reader wants it, with the goal of setting up a *residual income* stream.

  • I’m reading Francis Hamit’s comment and nodding my head:

    I’m an old trade magazine reporter and I’ve seen this level of hype before. The Next Big Thing usually isn’t, and it is never a total replacement for what was there before, just an added layer of distribution.

    The look of these books is dreadful as well. It might be fine for a directory or a parts manual, and I’d certainly rather see my son with an ereader of some kind than the 40 pounds of books he’s lugging back and forth from school each day, but other than that, the reading experience is terrible.

    As a book designer my reaction to all these ebooks is pretty predictable. They just don’t look like books to me. Some days I wonder whether soon all books will look like 11th grade term papers. At least a PDF is exactly what you want it to look like. Maybe Apple’s solution will use those. Now that would be progress!

  • Moriah: Time is money and I have “make or buy” decisions all the time, The residual income from 70 or so e-books falls short of the annual fees to keep them in print. I keep them up in the hope that will change in the future and as part of my promotional budget. They do make me look good. In the current economy I am reluctant to hire some of these functions done. The bottom line is that the print edition makes money and the e-books don’t and no amount of wishing is going to change that. The reason that the rpint edition makes money is that I follow the traditional discounts with give huge chuncks of the retail price to retailers and distributors. Our retail sales of signed copies is a courtesy to customers who want them, as are our book signings. Short term, none of it makes money, but long term it creates “buzz” and good will. I do treat this like a business. Our current promotion , which combines print advertising, social media and the 1-800-345-6665 tollfree number at our distributor, Pathway Book Service with special promotional codes for target groups, works only because I am not paying a retail commission on those copies. Almost all of my sales are wholesale and in bulk. This promotion may change that and become a model for others here to follow. We’ll see.

  • Joel, an ebook is not a book. I wish we could get away from the word “book.” Just as a tablet is not a scroll, and a scroll is not an illuminated bundle of leaves, and an illuminated bundle of leaves is not a ream of paper saddlestitched and bound in leather (and you could argue that’s a different experience from a paperback, but the analogy won’t strictly hold if I go there). It is an electronic method of getting to the text. It is not supposed to be like a printed book. Expecting it to invites frustration on everybody’s part.

    Francis, I can respect that that’s your experience, but it’s not mine, and your implication is that your experience is universal. And yes, I can well attest to the fact that time is money. However, what I have gotten out of my (then uncompensated) time is a suddenly booming business in formatting which kind of blindsided me (in an awesome way). So…yeah. That time? Now making me money, on both fronts–formatting and selling e-books.

  • Mike Cane: “This is why I am certain eBooks will die and digital books will thrive.” Actually, Mike, I don’t know what you mean by eBooks and digital books — to me they are identical. An eBook is simply an electronic or digital version of a printed book.

    I’m in agreement with Moriah Jovian: an eBook is NOT the same as a printed book, and I don’t expect it to be. As an avid reader, I love eBooks whatever the format used to produce them. I’m all about the content — “pretty” is a nice extra, but it’s not enough to make me go back to buying physical books. For one, eBooks are cheaper, but most importantly, I don’t have the space for any more physical books. I can satisfy my need for reading with eBooks and not have to worry about crowding myself out of my own home. 😉

  • >>>Compare ePub. It isn’t trademarked.


    “EPUB” Is A Registered Trademark

  • >>>Actually, Mike, I don’t know what you mean by eBooks and digital books — to me they are identical.

    Well then you are ignorant. Here:

    Dumb eBooks Must Die, Smart eBooks Must Live

  • I’m struggling with the ebook version of my book right now. It’s a special nightmare, because it’s structured as a choose-your-own-adventure, so it can’t be read by simply flipping to the next page. The Kindle will support html links to jump around to different pages in the book, but smashwords system doesn’t, so I’m still trying to figure out how to get it into epub and so forth.

    I’m medium tech-savvy, but it’s straining even my elevated levels of geekery.

  • The Kindle will support html links to jump around to different pages in the book, but smashwords system doesn’t, so I’m still trying to figure out how to get it into epub and so forth.

    No, you won’t be able to do that in Smashwords at all. Mark has it on his to-do list to allow people who code their own to upload those (I’m sure after some quality control checking), but that’s not high up on that list.

    You need to use Sigil for your EPUB: http://code.google.com/p/sigil/

    Or, um, you know, hire me. 😉

  • A very interesting article, Mike, about your vision for the future of eBooks as you want them to be. I was speaking in the present and eBooks currently are nothing more than electronic — or digital text — versions of physical books. I think you are defining digital books according to your future vision for the true potential of eBooks.

    Your vision sounds impressive to many I’m sure, but I wouldn’t want to pay extra for it. Like I said, I’m all about the words — I don’t need an individual eBook to be an ongoing experience. If our current “dumb” eBooks (as you call them) die out in favor of the “smart” eBooks you envision, I wouldn’t put out the extra money such books would demand. I guess I’d just have to make sure my library card is up to date.

    Or this ol’ ignorant dinosaur may have to give up on books altogether. 😉

  • The multitude of formats available for ebooks is overwhelming, but I’ve managed to muddle through over the years and I now produce my novels in 7 formats. My ebooks have always outsold my print books. I definitely see ebooks as the future of reading, especially for fiction because one pretty much just needs legible text.

    I don’t really let myself get bogged down in all the technical details. I find whatever software applications I can get for creating various formats and I use the ones that produce reasonably good files. If a standard format emerges, that would be great, but until then, I produce ebooks in popular formats that serve the majority of the market. If a self published author can’t deal with all this techie stuff, find a reliable person to outsource the job to and you’re set. Every author definitely needs to be available electronically. There is a growing segment of the reading market that prefers electronic reading.

    I own a Sony 505 ebook reader, by the way, and totally love it. The Sony IS my first choice for reading. I always look for a book I want to read in ebook format first before resorting to print. Tastes vary, so not everyone will like reading books electronically, but more people every day are getting turned on to it and liking it. I love the ebook business and know that it is going to be where I succeed as an author.

  • One of the things that bugs me about ereaders is that they’re all one-panel devices, which makes it a totally different process from reading a print book, where you can see two pages at once. This propels reading forward in a much different way than reading one page at a time. Ereaders should mimic it. Not that this is the best ereader out there, but when I saw it, I liked it:


    One day it’ll be cheap enough for the Nook or Kindle to create a thin, two panel ereader, w/ two large screens on either side.